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Showcase Your Sport: Q&A With Ireland International Hockey Umpire Alison Keogh

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In our new series, ‘Showcase your Sport’, in association with the Federation of Irish Sport, we will be giving you a thorough insight into some of the most fascinating sports we have in Ireland.

This week, our focus is on Hockey and answering our questions is umpire and former player Alison Keogh.

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When did you first get involved in Hockey? 

I began playing when I started secondary school as hockey was the main sport there. I was quite late starting as, at the time, hockey wasn’t played in the primary school I had gone to. 

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What drew you to the sport initially?

I had been playing camogie for a couple of years but wasn’t enjoying it. I still wanted to be involved in a team sport and it was actually my Dad who suggested hockey once I began secondary school. He had been involved as a coach and umpire years before and thought the game would suit me. Once I started I enjoyed the range of skills that were required, the fast pace of the game and the team aspect of it. 

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How did you get into the umpiring side of the game? 

My Dad used to umpire a lot of my club games and so it was easy for me to ask questions about why certain things were being called and what the rules were. Once I learned them, I couldn’t help myself on the pitch and began to let my opinion be known to those unfortunate enough to be umpiring my games, including my Dad!

Eventually, I was told, ‘you give it a go then!’ I umpired a Division 14 game one Saturday as my first match. The most positive thing initially was that I wasn’t afraid of the whistle. Most people are scared to make calls when they start off but I was confident enough in my knowledge of the rules that if I saw something, I would call it. That sounds like it was easy but there was a lot else to learn beyond that.

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Was it difficult to move away from playing? 

Yes and no. My move was gradual rather than an immediate shift. If I’m honest, I actually resisted a full step away from playing for a couple of years because I wasn’t ready to commit fully to umpiring at the time. It probably slowed down my umpire development but it meant that when I did make the call to step away fully from playing, I knew it was the right thing to do and I have never regretted it. 

Umpiring can be very lonely, especially during tough games, so at times I still miss the team environment, the training and the social side that you get from playing. But I’m happy with the decision I made. Umpiring has allowed me to progress further than I ever would have as a player. I’ve also been able to learn a lot more about myself and develop skills that I wouldn’t have if I had stayed playing. You also still have the opportunity to be part of a team, especially when away at tournaments, it’s just the dynamics of the team are different. 

While my transition was gradual, it was ultimately the best thing because I was able to experience both sides of the game for a while. As I was finding my feet with umpiring and all the new things that I had to learn around that, I was still getting the benefits and familiarity of playing too.

I think it’s important for people to realise that when you’re finding your feet umpiring and beginning to explore whether it’s for you or not, that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice. Some umpires I know have never stopped playing, but they’ve adjusted their level or their availability as their umpiring has progressed. It’s different for everyone but the flexibility can be there. 

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What is the best part of your role? 

I love just being able to facilitate a great game. The sport is so fast and skillful. It’s also shown itself to be innovative and willing to change over recent years with a lot of rules changes to make the game faster. If you umpire well you can protect that skill and help support an environment where it can flourish. Being a part of that and showcasing what the sport can be like is a real privilege.

I’ve been lucky to be able to do that all around the world too, so being able to travel and experience different cultures because of the sport I love is also a great honour. 

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What is the most difficult part of your role? 

Making mistakes! I don’t think people realise how quickly things can happen, or just how fickle angles are. One step to either side can make all the difference to something being obvious or completely missed. Our job is to get things right and so when that doesn’t happen, or there is uncertainty around that, it can be hard to manage, especially if that decision turns out to be game-defining. 

You often see on TV or even hear in the crowd, that when an umpire or a referee makes a mistake, it can be assumed that they don’t care about that mistake. Or worse again, it’s made personal and your skills or abilities are questioned. I don’t know a single umpire who doesn’t hate those moments or who doesn’t question why they happen or whether something could be done differently. Internationally, video umpire has been a fantastic addition to limit those major errors, but unfortunately, they can still occur, and they definitely still occur in club games. The level of the game doesn’t make them easier to take. But unfortunately, it’s a big part of everyone’s game. Learning the skills to deal with mistakes and figuring out how to avoid them as best you can in the future is one of the most important aspects of any umpires development, and it’s one that never goes away. 

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Have you a routine you follow before a game?

Yes, I’ve worked really hard on the mental side of my game over the years. Having a routine is a key part of that. Umpires are very similar to players, we just go through the same steps in a different manner. We have fitness standards we have to hit, we have video sessions that we go through, and most of us have things that we do to get in the zone before matches.

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The timeline of when I do my routine will depend on the game and the environment, but I’ll make sure I eat at a certain time, I have a playlist I listen to, I’ll grab a coffee, pack my bag a certain time in advance, and often do some sort of mindfulness too. That will all be a couple of hours beforehand. Once you arrive pitch side it’s you need to make sure your radios are working, that you’ve done a physical warm-up and that you’ve  talked through the game plan with your colleague. Regardless of the level we always speak beforehand about areas of control, words we might use and how we’ll manage things like set pieces in terms of supporting each other.

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What was it like to umpire at the World Cup in 2018? 

I wasn’t expecting to be appointed so being there was a huge honour to be there. I’ve never experienced anything like the venue and atmosphere before, so it was a real privilege to be a part of it. Usually, at tournaments there is a mix of both of experience levels with the officials but this was the first event I had been at where everyone was expected to perform at the same level, and that bar was, rightly, set very high. The game evolves so quickly that as officials we always need to make sure we are keeping up. The World Cup was a great learning curve from that perspective. It showed me that even when you’re at the top, there is always room for improvement and there is a responsibility to make sure you do what you need to do to stay there. 

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What is your proudest moment from your Hockey career? 

Being at the World Cup has been the proudest moment to date. I didn’t perform as high as I would have liked to looking back, but I try not to let that take away from the experience and the privilege of being selected. It was a big honour and a big learning curve and one that I do look back on with pride. My fondest moment though came this year when I got to umpire a local club game with my Dad. It was a Division 2  game in the Leinster league and it was nice to be on the pitch with the person who got me started on this journey. We had never done a game before and I’m not sure how many father-daughter pairings there has been so it was a pretty special moment. 

Author: Marisa Kennedy

Marisa is a Digital Journalist with Pundit Arena. You can contact her at marisa@punditarena.com or on Twitter

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